God’s Little Acre (1958)

Director: Anthony Mann

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

We’ve all had them—books we pawed through in adolescence, furtively looking for the “dirty” parts. Mine was Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me. The hubby’s was Erskine Caldwell’s 1933 Southern Gothic novel God’s Little Acre, a book so steamy and controversial that its author was arrested and tried for obscenity—his exoneration set an important First Amendment precedent that is still used to offer artists protection from censorship and prosecution. In 1958, God’s Little Acre set tongues wagging again. The film of this sensational novel, following in the footsteps of Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire and the general trend in Hollywood of offering up starlets with enormous breasts, paraded both the broad, strong chest of Aldo Ray and the luscious buxomness of Tina Louise in her screen debut. Throw in the extreme randiness of the jailbait daughter of the central character and a suggestion of adultery, and the film seemed poised to satisfy every vicarious need of the uptight American of the 1950s. That the film failed to connect with audiences then, and has its detractors now, bears testament to the conflicted point of view of its director, Anthony Mann.

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Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) is a farmer in name only. When we first meet Ty Ty, he’s shoveling dirt at the bottom of a deep crater with two of his sons, Buck (Jack Lord) and Shaw (Vic Morrow). He has spent more than a decade digging holes on his Georgia farm, not to plant cotton seeds, but to extract gold he claims his grandfather buried on the property. He’s got the fever, he says, and won’t give up until he’s unearthed his fortune. In a striking shot, Buck’s wife Griselda (Tina Louise), walks to the edge of the hole to offer the men some cooling lemonade—the light looming behind her reveals her shapely legs through her cotton shift. Her breasts threaten to spill out of her low-cut neckline as she bends over to serve the lemonade. Ty Ty admires her beauty, but Buck has turned angry and abusive with suspicion that Griselda has taken up again with her old beau Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), who is married to Griselda’s sister Rosamund (Helen Westcott) and lives in hope that the lights in the shuttered cotton mill where he and the rest of the town used to work will come on again.

The Waldens are paid a visit by Pluto Swint (Buddy Hackett) who is traveling the county in his truck to solicit votes for his bid for sheriff; he has an eye for Ty Ty’s youngest daughter Darlin’ Jill (Fay Spain), who sees him as nothing but an “old horsehead” with no sense. Ty Ty is delighted that Pluto wants to marry Darlin’ Jill, but he’s even more pleased that his daughter is getting a reputation as a terrible flirt, evidence that his little girl has finally become a woman. In fact, she’s jumping bones all over the county. She’ll soon make a bid for Dave Dawson (Michael Landon), an albino Ty Ty has kidnapped, convinced he has the power to “divine” where the gold is buried.

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When Ty Ty began digging for gold, he staked a cross in a patch of land he calls “God’s Little Acre”—whatever the land produces here will be donated to the church. Worried that the albino will find the gold there, he moves the cross to a corner near his house. When Dave actually wields the divining rod, he moves toward the new God’s Little Acre. Ty Ty moves swiftly to remove the cross before the rod comes down exactly where it had been planted. The Waldens get to work digging with renewed fury, undermining the stability of the house.

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Although Ty Ty is a religious man who never takes a drink, he is desperate. He ran out of money long ago, has extended his line of credit as far as it will go, and justifies the superstitious use of a diviner by reckoning that the albino is one of God’s creations. He has a dream of a happy, united family, but like the great tragic figures in literature, such as Oepidus, King Lear, and especially King Arthur, he is blind to the trouble he himself is creating. Just as Arthur fell into despair at the helpless treachery of Lancelot and Guenevere and plunged his kingdom into darkness, Ty Ty has failed to realize that he and the land are one and that to try to force wealth out of it instead of nurturing it will result in destruction.

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Ty Ty is the figure with which Anthony Mann is interested. In David Boxwell’s short essay in Senses of Cinema on Mann, he says the following:

And if there is one consistent major character archetype in Mann’s work it is the thwarted patriarch: Walt Radak (Raymond Burr) in Desperate; Lance Pool (Robert Taylor) in Devil’s Doorway; T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) in The Furies; Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) in The Man from Laramie; Ty-Ty (Robert Ryan) in God’s Little Acre; Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) in Man of the West. These men have tragic limitations of almost Greek proportions as they attempt, and often fail, to exercise control over self, family, and property. The limitations of their character and their power provide a thoroughgoing analysis of the limits of patriarchy as a social and economic structure of kinship and commerce.

The exuberance coming from the full-bodied performance of Robert Ryan generates a cockeyed optimism that does indeed seem strong enough to draw his family along with him in something other than dutiful obedience. But, Mann fails to discern the scope of Erskine Caldwell’s social commentary due to his intense focus on Ty Ty. Will, a delusional romantic who failed to marry the girl he loved and whom everyone else lusts after, has no children with his drably dutiful wife, and is stuck, permanently out of work, in his company town. He is the very picture of emasculated Southern manhood for whom hope is a noose into which he will one day slip his neck.

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The lot of the sharecroppers and factory workers in the South was indeed desperate, and it was this desperation Caldwell sought to expose even as he wove an archetypal story, both humorous and grotesque. Mann does film scenes of great poignancy—for example, the night Will appoints himself the town’s savior and sacrificial lamb by breaking into the mill to turn on the lights and the machines. Noirish lighting, cutaways to close-ups of Rosamund waiting in nervous dread for him to come home, of the townspeople rousing from sleep to congregate at the awakened behemoth of the mill, and the feckless security guard (Russell Collins) following and threatening Will as he flips switches make for a tightly paced and tense sequence. Likewise, the reunion of Will and Griselda at the Walden farm results in a steamy near-seduction—Louise cooling herself at the outdoor pump wearing only a slip, Ray shirtless and swooning in her presence.

But there’s some connective tissue missing here. What happens to Will, to Griselda, to everyone but Ty Ty lacks urgency. We don’t feel this is a family that once was connected and that has now fallen apart. The symbolism is there—the empty holes, the precariously balanced house, the marriages lacking children, the factory lacking activity—but it all seems strangely remote, episodic. The film’s tone is all over the place, thus, the ironic ending has little impact. Despite a dynamite script from blacklisted writer Ben Maddow (through his front Philip Yordan) that makes excellent use of Caldwell’s language, Mann just didn’t seem to understand what to do with it. While God’s Little Acre doesn’t approach the true masterwork of this genre, Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), the film can be enjoyed for some of its excellent parts, some good performances, and a great sense of landscape.
God’s Little Acre, another preservation success story, was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding from the Packard Humanities Institute. The film was shown during UCLA’s 13th Festival of Film Preservation in 2006.

  • Rod spoke:
    24th/01/2010 to 7:51 pm

    Mann was usually a far superior – and much less excruciatingly obvious – portrayer of social milieu and political themes in his films than Kazan. I wonder if the semi-elevated nature of this material straitjacketed him a little.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/01/2010 to 8:16 pm

    I don’t think he was comfortable in the Southern Gothic mode and the strange humor in Southern writing. The comedy that comes through is due almost completely to the competence of the actors, such as Hackett and Ryan. Michael Landon, in what could have been more a comedic part, falls flat. Whatever you might think of Kazan, he did have a sure hand when it came to this milieu. Baby Doll does it just right.

  • Greg F spoke:
    24th/01/2010 to 8:25 pm

    I wonder if the fact of such famous source material didn’t hamstring him (I didn’t want to copy Rod’s straitjacketed metaphor). Famous novels have a pretty high failure rate on the screen, Harry Potter and LOTR aside, because people bring too many expectations to them and the writer and director know those expectations are going to be coming and so they start to second-guess themselves and… well, it usually goes downhill from there.
    Still, I’ve never seen this and now I want to, if only to see how Tina’s breasts don’t fall out. That picture above is a doozy of physics defying action.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/01/2010 to 8:34 pm

    In fact, Greg, they do fall out in one scene. Another such mishap was cut from the picture.
    I don’t buy that the fame of the book hamstrung Mann. He refocused the film to his particular obsession with the patriarch and threw the balance of the story off.

  • Rod spoke:
    24th/01/2010 to 9:04 pm

    Frankly, I don’t think that’s a very accurate reading of Mann’s oeuvre at all. He’s not particularly obsessed with patriarchs. He is particularly obsessed with obsessive individuals in specific social milieus, often exposing clashing creeds and philosophies.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/01/2010 to 9:14 pm

    Well, I can’t argue that point too much. I haven’t seen a large number of his films, but certainly obsession is a major feature of the ones I’ve seen. I do think, though, God’s Little Acre is a film filled with obsessives – Will, Darlin’ Jill, Buck – but they are all overshadowed by Ty Ty.

  • ivan spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 12:44 pm

    Holy moly! I just watched this last night!
    And Marilyn, you’re right: the tonal shifts in this flick are exasperating–it’s like two flicks with nothing in common except the Southern locale being stapled together.
    However, the movie is a must-see for fans of Robert Ryan: Ty Ty is one of his livliest characters, and one of the few that are (for at least part of the time) happy.
    Thanks,
    Ivan

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 1:12 pm

    Ivan, thanks, and I quite agree that Ryan is worth the price of admission. A really charismatic performance.

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 4:19 pm

    Jack Lord? Tina Louise? Buddy Hackett? I must say, that’s a supporting cast that looks odd after the 60s.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 4:33 pm

    That was pointed out the TCM host.

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 6:25 pm

    It’s a bit like William Shatner and Werner Klemperer in “Judgment at Nuremberg.” Klemperer is chilling in that movie.
    He and John Banner (Sgt. Shultz) were in a movie called “Operation Eichmann.” Klemperer was EIchmann and Banner was Heinrich Himmler. Apparently they were quite good too. This was well before “Hogan’s Heroes.”

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 6:31 pm

    My mistake, Banner played Rudolph Hoess, who was one of the commandants at Auschwitz. Luis van Rooten was Himmler.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/01/2010 to 6:59 pm

    You missed Michael Landon in the cast. Actually, they were all quite good, though Louise had little to do but swivel her body around. God’s Little Acre, though, isn’t nearly as deep as Judgment at Nuremburg.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    2nd/07/2010 to 11:48 am

    “But there’s some connective tissue missing here. What happens to Will, to Griselda, to everyone but Ty Ty lacks urgency. We don’t feel this is a family that once was connected and that has now fallen apart. The symbolism is there—the empty holes, the precariously balanced house, the marriages lacking children, the factory lacking activity—but it all seems strangely remote, episodic. The film’s tone is all over the place, thus, the ironic ending has little impact.”

    OK Marilyn, this is the superlatively-observed passage that I read that stayed with me, even as I watched the film on the big screen last night. Naturally, seeing the film this way would tend to accentuate it’s attributes (with some of course it would amplify its flaws) but the episodic nature of this film really made it an uneven experience, even with that stunningly choreographed final sequence and the always exquisite cinematography by Ernest Haller to engage the senses. Even Elmer Bernstein’s swelling Mockingbirdish score seemed oddly inappropriate. And why was the woman sitting next to me always laughing at every line Buddy Hackett uttered? Am I missing something?

    I don’t think so, and this extraordinary review pulls no punches in laying out the argument. But I can’t say I was ever bored, even with the bargain-basement transcription of the kind of cheesy 50’s cinema that seemed to regularly transcribe literary works. You mention BAD SEED (I agree) and I’d add EAST OF EDEN and some other Williams adaptations as notable exceptions.

    I’ve been reading through Jeanine Basinger’s seminal volume aon Anthony Mann (which I bought at the theatre concession stand) and she still fely that both GOD’S LITTLE ACRE (and MEN AT WAR) were major works, and she made some most perceptive aguments as to the film’s excellent aspects. Mann himself identifies the film as one of his “four best” when asked by interviewers. (the others: WINCHESTER 73, EL CID and MEN IN WAR)

    I’ll certainly read the rest of the lengthy assessment (and any others I can get my hands on) but I do believe that Marilyn Ferdinand’s review here has accurately nabbed the film’s issues. This is the first Mann film at the festival over the first week that didn’t impress me on a high level, even if I am still happy I saw it and see it’s considerable positives.

    Tonight it’s MAN OF THE WEST and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, two films that I know Ferdy-on-Films have roundly celebrated!

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